Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘snivel kit

Four Feet Of F*** All

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I decided not to use the full word in the title here, I’m not sure why because while I’m pretty good about moderating my idioms (doesn’t that sound smarter?), sometimes the slip out. It’s sort of the nature of the beast, I guess. The title is written on the “current operations” board in our S3 (Operations) shop, I think it’s a naval term as it’s a US Navy guy who put it there. He just started his journey home, as did our S2 (Intelligence)/Movement Operations/Public Affairs/Signals/IT officer, who also in response to a sexist comment by me about sandwiches and her being the only female here, made me an absolutely wonderful sandwich with a nice note. She played along with my sense of humour, and did a fantastic job here on everything. It was particularly cool because she’s a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, someone who’s normally on a warship, and she volunteered to come here, learned the language, got stuck right into the culture, and lamented on Facebook as she was leaving about leaving a city she has grown to love. She certainly spent a lot of time exploring it on convoys, and her efforts to build relationship with the locals were amazing. She’ll be missed.

That’s the way things are going here, though – the cast is dwindling, and it’s a bit sad as voices your used to hearing in the office gradually go silent. There’s no one new coming, we’re all headed out of here over the next few months.

A few days into Ramazan things are very quiet for the most part. We had a brief period where we couldn’t go down to see our ANA partners so things really slowed down. They did run a very successful course with a substantially larger number of students than normal, though it was a bit hectic for me. When we first got here, we had the tailors make us some “Catherder” morale patches, and I felt like replacing my unit patch with it for a while, to see if anyone noticed, and because it was apt. It took literally the entire staff here to manage getting the students on to camp for lunch and then back off, but it seems my diplomacy skills both with them and with our security people (who are generally a great bunch of people) helped.

Normally the students are from the Kabul area so we didn’t think there’d be much demand for them to stay at the school while they were on course, but a few of them came from further afield – one from Kunduz, one from Mazar-e Sharif, one from Baghlan, and one from Parwan. We had arranged transient accommodation inside our camp for them, but then learned that having an ANA escort for them wasn’t enough – we had to have a coalition person escort them everywhere and monitor them even overnight. So I put my diplomacy skills to work to persuade them to sleep on the ANA side, and with blankets and pillows they eventually agreed to do so. And were actually happier to do it since it meant they could go up the road in the morning to get naan and so on.

I did have to bring them to supper each night, but it was an interesting experience, and my basic Dari (aided by a little dictionary I picked up at Camp Phoenix before I went to Germany) and their rudimentary English went a long way. Generally conversations with Afghans revolve around where you are from, your family, and what you think of Afghanistan. They can conceive of Canada as a country far away somewhere but really that’s all they know. They tend to think it’s some part of America (which I guess, in the sense of North America, is true). They are eager to know where in Afghanistan you’ve been what you think of the place. My universal response is listing off some of the places I’ve gone and I always tell them that I am eager to return some day as a tourist, to actually see the rest of the country – hell, I’d like to just be able to explore more of Kabul, other than through the windows of a vehicle.

They’ll always ask if I’m married, and I learned that the concept of a wedding ring doesn’t make sense to them (in fact, they’ll often ask what the ring is), and of course, how many sons I have. Being married for as long as I have been and not having kids isn’t an acceptable answer particularly, so I’ve learned to a) understate how long I’ve been married and b) dodge the question with one of the great catch-all phrases in Islamic cultures – mashallah. It basically means “God’s will be done” – more specifically, it can mean “because that’s the way it is.” Very useful. Similarly, just about any commitment can be ducked with “inshallah” – “if God wills it”. It’s the best “maybe” ever.

Walking back to the gate one night, one of the students said, “You should come to Kunduz to visit it. You will stay with my family in my home, and I will show you my part of this country.” These offers are common. And they’re actually quite serious. In fact, we were all invited to one of the ANA instructors’ homes for dinner one night. When we said we regrettably weren’t allowed to go, he lamented that it was too bad, but he understood. He then pointed out that the Russians did that all the time and didn’t see why were so cautious. The reality is, most of us would love to accept such hospitality, but we are barred from levels well above us.

I was pretty happy that the course feedback was good, though the ANA wanted us to help them with the practical exercises which we use on coalition courses so they can adapt them. The school director in our last meeting jokingly said “You’re lucky it’s Ramazan and I’m obligated to be well-behaved, because otherwise I might want to fight you” over not running this training previously, which we had talked about. I realized he was clearly joking so I didn’t get wound up over it. I explained that while we were happy to help, they needed to plan the training and we’d help make it happen, so all was well. We did hash out a plan to run some advanced training for their instructors before I go on leave, which started today. Basically, our products are modularized in three levels – Mod 1 and 2 are the basis of all ANSF training, and realistically, almost all coalition/NATO training. Mod 3 is fairly advanced set of classes which the ANSF aren’t ever going to need to teach, however, it seemed that there would be some value in giving them exposure to the concepts so they could improve their depth of knowledge. It’s good to be able to do that to deal with what we call “sharpshooters”, people who ask more difficult, on-the-spot questions requiring more knowledge. We know that the ANSF know the lectures they teach inside-out but rarely go beyond that.

This morning I met them at the gate and brought them in to the office while we set up, and as usual you have to go through the barrage of questions, how are you, how’s your family, how’s your health, how is work, how are your spirits, etc. I say “barrage”, but don’t get the idea that it’s in any way inconvenient or unpleasant. It’s how Afghans are, and it’s part of any meeting. In fact, it’ll probably rub off on me quite a bit, just as the custom of placing my right hand over my heart after saying hello to people is now something of a reflex we do even amongst the coalition folks here. We set up the lecture and I started to teach. Normally, I keep either a coffee cup or a bottle of water close by, but as it’s Ramazan, I decided not to. I was mainly worried about my interpreter, Faisal, because I was making him talk a lot. He was fine however. Halfway though the class, the senior instructor says, “why don’t you have some water?” I replied, “It’s Ramazan, I’m not going to drink in front of you!” They all laughed. “We know you’re not fasting, just us. We won’t be offended.” All I could say was, “Well, I may be an infidel, but I respect the custom and I will not do that. I appreciate your consideration, though.” This elicited more laughter, but aptly tied in to a concept I was in the middle of teaching, about how to get to understand and win the trust and respect of people. It worked brilliantly.

For now, I’m basically counting down the days until I go on leave, as it’ll be very quiet here for the next little while. I’ve got pretty much everything I need – some more camera accessories came the other day and I’ve been playing with them all and learning how to take better pictures. I did find out that I paid way too much for my camera (damn you, AAFES!), but realistically, the better deals I found couldn’t reasonably have been accessible – the vendors don’t ship to APO addresses or to Canada. So I can’t really whinge. I also got a nice huge box from Mountain Equipment Co-op – a backpack, clothes, and shoes – all stuff I’ll need for the trip that I didn’t have with me. I had to get one pair of pants hemmed here, for $4. It wasn’t the best job, but I don’t really care that much I guess.

I’ve also been patronizing the tailor here a bit – I’ve bought a new suit, a couple of sports jackets, and a tuxedo, all for ridiculously good prices, and the quality is pretty excellent. I think I will likely get myself a couple more suits before I go home, but it’s funny seeing how much some people are spending there. I was looking at carpets and jewelry as well. My colleague got himself a triple loop and other jewelers’ tools to evaluate the stones on offer and has decided they’re not worth much though. I do want some lapis lazuli though, it’s beautiful.

I got a massive care package (well, four of them) today from an organization back in Canada which has been awesome to me, it actually came in yesterday but I wasn’t around to collect it. The Canadians across the street saw the contents list and openly mused about simply “forgetting” to tell me about them and just helping themselves, but one of our drivers thwarted them. I did share the spoils though, I have enough junk food to last a while, and some school supplies and trinkets to hand out when we see kids around – which doesn’t happen as much now as it had previously – but we’re looking to find a school to take them, or the local nationals who work here as they all have children.

When I return from leave, there will be very little left to do other than the transition to Afghans – after that, I’ll still have quite a bit of time left here, and I don’t really know what I’ll wind up doing. One of the Canadians here has already been moved to another job, one more is likely to be moved shortly, and our leadership is actively seeking new jobs for us as we work ourselves out of where we are. I have no doubt that something will be found for me to round out my time. I have an idea of when I’m going home too, the first draft of our RIP (relief in place) plan is done, and I don’t think my position will change in it. I do think I’ll be in for a new job though before I leave – hopefully something interesting. I don’t want to have to move camps especially, but these things happen.

For now, I’ll just stay flexible, and see what I can do to help make our transition a success. Boredom is a real enemy, so I’m trying to find ways to fight it – to stay motivated. We’re working on studying for the LSAT as my colleague and I are both musing about going to law school and as such will need to sit the admissions test in December. That’s helping keep the boredom at bay when there aren’t things going on. We’re also working on cleaning up the office, packing up things we don’t need, and that sort of thing.

Written by Nick

July 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm

A Busy Week

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I’ve spent the last few days on mobile training teams – both with my ANA partners, and also as part of a team delivering some training to some coalition folks – Hungarians. It feels like I’ve been gone from the office quite a while, even though I haven’t – but part of that is from the conspicuous absence of some of the cast of characters – some of the key people are on leave right now, so it’s going to be a quiet little while.

The training I was part of delivering happened at KAIA – Kabul International Airport, which in addition to its obvious function has a lot going on in the area. It’s home to the ISAF Joint Command, among other things (and yes, you can find that on ISAF’s own website!). IJC hosted a women’s shura the other day, which conveniently coincided with our arrival. We had planned to go a day early to give us time to survey the facility we were using for the classes, meet the points of contact, and mainly, to avail ourselves of the many amenities to be found at KAIA. It may have the worst DFAC in the whole country, but it also has several PXs, a veritable strip mall of Afghan shops, and some great restaurants.

Which, because of the shura, were all closed.

So we basically were sitting on a base where there was almost nothing to do but go to the gym for the day.

The training itself went pretty well – on both accounts. Getting to the site of the first event was a little bit chaotic on account of Kabul’s terrible traffic, amplified by the heavy rain and notable lack of storm drains – entire roads were basically flooded out, we didn’t know this until we were basically stuck in it. However, things were good – the ANA instructor I went out with was excellent, the students were attentive, and we made some connections for people who have some interesting contributions to make to training, and want to participate. We’ll see how that goes. We also drank copious amounts of the best damned chai I’ve ever had, I don’t know what was different about it from regular green tea, but it was really good.

We did, finally, before leaving KAIA, get a chance to do some window shopping and get some awesome pizza from Ciano – which is basically the Italian PX. I browsed some other things I was interested in (among other things, I need clothes for when I go on leave!), but didn’t buy much, despite the valiant effort of a carpet salesman to get me to buy a stunning Kunduz carpet, but the price just wasn’t right, and I’m not buying any now anyhow.

I also spent 18 Euros on an hour long full body massage. Which was worth every penny, and then some.

Tomorrow is ANZAC Day, and given that there are several Australians on my camp, we’ll be out for a ceremony in the morning. It’ll be the first time I’ve worn my beret since I got here, and fortunately I was able to find it. Then it’s back to planning my next training adventure, probably the last chance I’ll have to do actual instruction here, because we’re having the ANA take the lead on that now, and any coalition folks who wanted to hear from us got their final notice a few weeks ago.

Written by Nick

April 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Mail Call

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I returned from a little trip to discover a huge amount of mail waiting for me – two unexpected boxes.

One came from the Halifax MFRC, a box with some Easter Candy and some other goodies, and a couple of cards from school kids in Nova Scotia, so I’m going to have to send a letter back to their school at some point soon. I almost wish I had a photo printer, but what I think I’ll do is add some pictures to flickr and send them a link to see them. Or something like that. They apparently send along a box every season, which is great. It had some copies of The Coast and some other stuff. They also apparently had Tourism Nova Scotia send another copy of the NS travel guide, because I got one already and had another arrive. It’s just nice to see pictures of home. And maybe entice some of my colleagues to plan a trip there.

I got an expected box from my folks with some beef jerky and some Mexican candy (Pulparindo – whoever combined tamarind and chili is a genius) that they get down in Arizona for me – and also a Toblerone that I’ve hidden away for a “rainy day”. I also got a package from my lovely wife including some awesome fudge and some other things I asked for from home. It actually arrived in pretty good time, though the box of pashminas and other goodies I sent here hasn’t made it there yet. I’m still also waiting on my Keurig replacement, which as of last week was in Kuwait or something, but who knows when it’ll turn up. It’s just going to go back into my MOB because we have a functioning machine.

The funniest package, however, came from a friend of mine who’s a brother officer and my most common partner in crime before he moved to Ottawa. On packages, you have to list on the outside what is in the box, and his list was hilarious.

In the CF, for some reason, we choose a bizarre way of labeling/describing items. For example, the tunic/shirt I usually wear is officially known as “Converged Coat, Combat, CADPAT AR.” On my feet, I wear “Boots, Hot Weather”. We stretch these descriptions to ridiculous ends at times. Things like “Pencil, Mechanical, 0.5mm, High Speed Low Drag Type”. To these descriptions on our EIS (Equipment Issue Scale) the number you get is added. So it’s “Converged Coat, Combat, CADPAT AR, 4 each”.

So, among the items listed were “Coffee, freeze dried, hipster, 16 ea.”, “Mix, drink, sports, assorted, 20 ea.” and “Book, Reference, 1 ea.”. Maybe it’s not so funny to the average flat-faced civvie, but it got a good chuckle from everyone here. He also sent along some spices I’ll need to figure out good uses for, but if I don’t they’ll serve me well at home anyhow.

The funny thing is I’ve gotten so many offers for getting things sent over, but in reality, there’s not much I really need – we have so much of almost everything available, and I’m pretty comfortably situated to get anything else. If the shops here don’t have something, I can just ask and they’ll find it. Even that’s not a big issue. I have an allowance for myself of spending money (based on what I have to keep here) and I don’t get anywhere near it normally.

Written by Nick

April 7, 2012 at 2:38 am

A Little Like Christmas

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As you may well recall, back in December I packed two MOB boxes full of all sorts of goodies and sent them off to come here. Last night, they arrived, delivered by a logistics convoy. It was late at night so some of our colleagues weren’t too amused in the shacks by people opening them up and rooting around. I didn’t really bother much except to find my Keurig machine and coffee, gleefully ready to bring it in to the office today and savour some really good coffee.

Alas, it was not to be.

I unpacked the machine and plugged it in and… nothing. I’m not an expert on electronics but learning fast. Part of the challenge we have here is an assortment of plugs, voltages, and amperage. I think despite my belief that I was using the right combination that something went wrong.

So we brought over another Keurig machine that was left behind and grabbed by my roommate, but it blew the fuse in the stepdown transformer at my desk, because it’s only rated for 500 amps, and the Keurig needs 1500. The shops here have a perfect transformer. For $100. We’re trying to find a solution. And hoping the good people at Keurig will replace my machine, because, well, supporting the troops is the right thing to do or something like that.

The other thing I’m incredibly excited about is the massive memory foam mattress topper I bought on whim at Costco during our Epic Shopping Trip. It was a fight to get it on a top bunk, but it’s all done now. I have a nice civilized set of sheets and all, but I seem to find sleeping in my ranger blanket more comfortable, so I’ll probably just keep doing that, but hopefully this will make it all a little more comfortable. The rest of the box contents were what we call “consumables” – soap, razor blades, shaving soap, and so on. I had a nice big score of a 50% off anything up to $250 at The Body Shop just before I sent the boxes off, so I got my favourite shaving soap there, and I think I’ll actually have some to take home when I’m done.

So other than the Keurig letdown, life’s brightening up a little, at least in terms of my little piece of the world. There’s lots going on beyond, though – more green-on-blue incidents, two yesterday. It’s a harsh reminder of having to retain vigilance. The nature of our work environment makes it a minor threat, but nevertheless, it’s probably the main thing to worry about. There was also a large bombing plot foiled at the Ministry of Defence downtown, which caught a lot of attention. It’s probably a good thing to remember that we’re not “in Kansas”, but it’s quite honestly easy to forget that from time to time.

I’ve been watching, with interest, a number of discussions in various forums about the future of Afghanistan, and the effectiveness of efforts here. Though I tend to stay fairly positive about how things are working here, optimistic that things here have improved and will continue to improve. However, there’s been several discussions about how to “do” counterinsurgency here, how good the doctrine is and how well it’s been implemented. The reality is that it seems like that all important principle of “unity of effort” isn’t perfect, and I saw that seeing the disconnect between various civilian agencies and NGOs and the military. It’s not accurate to say it’s totally dysfunctional, but one has to wonder if we’ve managed to really achieve that unity of effort, and to really understand the environment, particularly harnessing the tribal structures and mechanisms of governance. That said, the fact that people can recognize that there’s challenges there is at least an indication that there’s an understanding of the issue. Suffice it to say, the discussions have added a lot to my reading list in terms of studying COIN and development and so on. It’s not easy to see the situation through the eyes of those living here, and the impression I’ve gotten is that there’s no single POV amongst Afghans – people from down south see things remarkably differently from people in Kabul. Hardly surprising, though.

It boils down to a fairly simple conclusion, though. We can give people tools and ideas and support, but it’s up to them to decide how to use them, and what the future here will look like. I’ve always said I’d love to come here as a tourist some day, so I hope it works out.

Written by Nick

March 27, 2012 at 6:19 am

The Final Week…

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It’s been four weeks already of workup, and it feels like it’s raced along. This is the last week before we head back home for Christmas leave. In my case, I have to report in to my home unit for a few days before I can start burning some leave. This week is pretty light, a final DAG process, some lectures, and then the mundane administrative process of outclearance, getting off the base. That’s going to be pretty easy because we’re basically being treated like we’re staying, anyhow. I don’t have to clear out of my room, or anywhere else. I just have to pack. I’m trying to figure out how to rationalize all of the stuff I have here so that it’s easy to keep organized for when we leave. I’m going to take home a lot of stuff that will no longer be needed, ditch some kit I have that’s now obsolete, and start to adjust to living out of a barracks box for the most part.

This morning we welcomed back our boss who’s just returned from a “Tac Recce” visit to Kabul, gathering all sorts of information from our counterparts over there that will be turned into handover briefs for us. He had a lot of good information to share about how things are working there now, how they are anticipated to be working in the new year, and what impact the many changes happening in Afghanistan at the moment will have. With the Americans getting ready to pull about a third of their forces out of the country, NTM-A will certainly be doing some reorientation, and it will directly impact us. We’re not sure how just yet, though, and no one really wants to start rumours. They don’t help at all. We’re just sticking to a mantra I learned from a mentor of mine – Semper Gumby. Always flexible.

We spent the rest of the morning with the military police doing some training on detainee handling, personnel searches, and vehicle checkpoints. The likelihood of needing to know any of that stuff is relatively low, but all the same, it’s important. I hadn’t had a thorough review of it in a long time, and things have changed a lot anyhow, as they often do. The MP who taught it had lots of great stories to illustrate her points, and that made the process much better than some massive PowerPoint presentation as was the expectation.

Following that, as I’ve been tagged as a Unit Ethics Coordinator, I was tasked with delivering an ethics briefing. I had to condense a large package into something useful but brief, and I think it went pretty well, based on the feedback I got. It’s going to have to be revisited in more detail, but I don’t actually have the relevant course yet, so that will wait. I did introduce the concepts, and they are important. The CF has suffered from some failings in that area over the years, and the emphasis made on explaining why it matters is a valuable thing.

The briefing complete, I headed back to the office to catch up on email, and was prompted by the Company Sergeant Major (CSM) to go through the DAG process that was ongoing for the 2RCR folks. I was basically already DAG Green on the key points, but there were a few little things left to get checked off, so I’m now done them – and just have to get my green passport processed. Green passports are “Special” passports carried by officials of the Government of Canada, ie me when I deploy. I’ll enter Afghanistan on that passport, but keep my regular blue passport for my leave travel.

Somewhere in there, I found time to get over to the LAV barn and find my tan uniforms, which are now set to kill all manner of insects that might attempt to approach them. I have to take a combat shirt over to the office with me tomorrow for a “media handout photo”. I think I warned readers that we have a kind of bizarre, gallows humour kind of thing. The only time those photos are media handouts are when things go very, very bad. So we call them “hero pics” or more cynically, “dead guy pics”. That said, my parent brigade is making a display of all their deployed personnel that those pics will adorn, so that’s a little better use. I hate being photographed though, and blink/squint in photos constantly, so I’m not really looking forward to it. It took about ten tries to get my passport picture done this evening.

This evening – right – a trip to Costco, and $600 later, I’m back with a MOB box full of almost everything I’ll likely need for the tour in terms of consumable – everything but shampoo, to be specific, and enough coffee and tea to last… well… a couple of weeks anyhow. I picked up a nice set of fleece sheets as well, and a memory foam mattress pad, which I think I’m going to have to either persuade someone else to put in one of their MOBs, or just return. Since I have the camp coffee maker in my MOB, I think it’s only fair someone should bring the thing for me. I’ll try to sort that out tomorrow.

My UAB gets loaded into a sea container Wednesday night to start the long journey, and hopefully it’ll find me in Kabul fairly close to my arrival.

The day was busy enough that I almost forgot to observe a moment of quiet reflection for a sad anniversary. Today marked the third anniversary of the day an IED killed a good friend of mine in Senjaray, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Cpl Mark MacLaren, MMV, was 24 and joined up not long after I did. The hit that killed him and his two OMLT colleagues was quite a loss, but through the life he led he enjoys a sort of immortality few will know. RIP Chinaman.

I’m not really sure what else will fill the rest of the week, because some of the planned training has been rescheduled. Rumours abound that we’ll be sent home early, which suits me – I could use the jump on settling some other business that needs to be looked after on the home front anyhow.

Written by Nick

December 6, 2011 at 12:07 am